So, why is Trump courting Modi?
All said and done Trump’s presence at ‘Howdy, Modi!’ is a PR bonanza, plus it comes in the wake of India's Jammu and Kashmir move.
It’s quite a departure from trying to mediate in Kashmir to make Pakistan feel good for a bit. But Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s daily calls for jihad and threats of nuclear war have unsettled American and Arab leaders alike. He may have totally lost Trump.
As Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani told me, while Trump may have hosted Khan, it is Modi that he considers his “ally and friend”. This will certainly “depress those who thought Khan’s last trip to Washington represented a breakthrough in relations”.
So why is Trump courting Modi? Yes, it’s great to be part of a charged up crowd. But we know Indian Americans lean more towards the Democratic Party. Can he sway a significant chunk of the vote?
There may be a deeper play on. Notice the White House announcement on Trump attending Modi’s rally. It also mentions a joint event with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to celebrate a new manufacturing plant.
Three of the four leaders of the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -- the US, India and Australia -- are doing things in pairs this week. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the fourth member, assiduously courts Trump and meets him frequently.
In the struggle to maintain supremacy, the American deep State wants India in its corner. It doesn’t want China to establish any more points of control around the Arabian Sea -- think Gwadar -- as it has done in South China Sea. The rest is detail.
Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex, which was gearing up in a last-ditch attempt to grab attention by trying to disrupt Modi’s rally, may want to think again now that Trump is attending.
Imagine shadowy figures of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) pulling the strings of obvious ‘front’ organisations such as ‘Kashmir2Khalistan’ or ‘Sikhs For Justice’ for a protest against the US president in the US! The FBI is probably on their tail already.
On the other hand, India and the US have a trade deal to announce, so long as the US doesn’t pile on any and everything. The idea is to solidify what the two sides already agree on and keep adding to the deal. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is ‘ready to roll’ because Trump needs a trade win for his 2020 re-election campaign.
Republican Congressmen are pushing Lighthizer to restore India’s benefits under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) -- at least partially -- if India removes specific barriers.
Thing is, US importers of Indian products eligible for GSP are hurting because their costs have risen. If a trade deal fructifies, Trump and Modi can celebrate together in Houston. But as they say, there is many a slip -- or tweet – between the cup and the lip.
All said and done Trump’s presence at ‘Howdy, Modi!’ is a PR bonanza. It comes in the wake of New Delhi’s controversial moves in Kashmir. The US administration has been doing a delicate balancing act -- neither condemning nor condoning the decision, while urging a quick lifting of the communication freeze and release of political leaders. Like it or not, in these times of great churn, Kashmir is only a small part of the puzzle.
But there is one potential downside. Since Trump is a polarising figure, some Democrats are uncomfortable sharing the stage with him. As a long-time observer told me, Indian American community leaders will have to ‘play this smartly’.
The choice for Dems: should they anger the base, or please an Indian American donor? Pressure on Kashmir from leftist groups, dalit activists and Muslim American organisations -- Black Muslims recently protested outside the Indian embassy -- is intense.
BJP’s best friend, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, has backed out. But about 25 Democrats and Republicans are expected. House majority leader Steny Hoyer, second only to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will address the rally.
Don’t forget that Pakistan has stirred both Muslim and Khalistani groups. Last month, ISI masterminds reportedly organised a ‘community meeting’ in Norway of Sikhs from Europe, the US, Britain and Canada to rile them on the Kashmir issue. The message: ready, get set, go.
But US lawmakers and their young staffers have no way of knowing who is calling, or sending a protest email to their offices -- a genuine Kashmiri, or a Pakistani American pretending to be an Indian Kashmiri? A quick search of ‘Friends of Kashmir’ reveals that its office-holders are all Pakistanis sitting in Karachi. When Democrat Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal writes on behalf of ‘our constituents’, who’s to say if her staff had the time to crosscheck their antecedents. It doesn’t require a Russian level of interference to game this.
As an experiment, I checked one of these ‘email generators’. One click and I received a prepared statement addressed to the Congresswoman representing the area I live in. It warned of the “looming danger of genocide of Kashmiri people” and demanded that she take notice. Thousands of such emails are being generated as Modi heads to Houston.